God Loves A Trier

Much as I like Twitter and find it to be very useful as an source of up to date HR and Employment Law debate and information, there is one really irritating thing about it as a business tool – the urge of some people to tweet “inspirational” or “motivational” quotes which are normally no more than platitudes. One that particularly annoys me, and which bizarrely seems extremely popular among HR people, comes from Yoda in Star Wars

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(As an aside, it does bemuse me that people find inspiration from a swamp-dwelling homunculus with the voice of Fozzie Bear and a lack of knowledge of English sentence structure).

Let’s just examine that. Firstly – Do or Do Not. Well if those are my options, I think I’ll do not, thanks. After all, doing seems like a bit of effort.

And then “There is no try”. Nonsense (unless Yoda is referring to the video ref in a rugby match). We try all the time, and encourage others to do the same. What is the standard response when a child won’t eat a new food? “Just give it a try”.

Trying new things is an essential part of being human. It combines the excitement of doing something new, with the risk that it might not be successful. But even if it’s not successful, we learn something from it – even if it’s our own limitations. Look at a programme like Strictly Come Dancing. People who are famous for other things try to learn to dance. Some of them become extremely accomplished. Others find it a real effort and plod around the dancefloor. Occasionally one or two are so hopeless that it becomes difficult to watch without embarrassment. But the key thing is that they all try. And indeed some of the plodders become extremely popular with the viewers because they are seen to be making the effort, even if they don’t succeed.

No try means no learning, no development, no change, no possibilities, no growth. Trying is understanding that “failure” is sometimes the right outcome – and that if you do nothing unless you’re certain of the outcome then nothing is what you’ll do.

Can’t Buy Me Love

While catching up on blogs post-holiday, I came across this piece by Neil Morrison. Neil is a well-respected HR Director with a household name company and member of the CIPD council, so when I read it I could only guess that his post was written to be intentionally provocative.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that when we in HR talk about “discretionary effort” from employees, we are in effect expecting them to do more than we are paying them for. If individuals just do the bare minimum, we don’t consider that satisfactory. In effect we want something for nothing – if we want more we should pay more.

At a very superficial level, that seems an attractive argument (and indeed a Marxist would argue that the essence of capitalism is that workers are not paid the full value of their work – as I pointed out in this post about Wayne Rooney)

But there are two strong points against this. The first is that many employers also offer “discretionary” things to their employees. If your workplace has a canteen or buffet bar; if you get paid your normal salary during sickness or any part of your maternity leave; in fact, even if a family member dies and you are given compassionate leave; then you are receiving something your employer does not have to offer. It doesn’t matter why the employer is doing this, they are giving you something more than you are legally entitled to. So to expect in return that you as an employee might give a little extra back is not, in my view, unreasonable. In fact, if we want to view work as a purely economic transaction, then I’m damned if I’m going to say “thank you” for a piece of work – after all it’s what you’re paid to do. And to take Neil’s analogy, if you ask for two scoops of ice-cream and it’s poor quality mass produced tasteless stuff, you’ve no grounds to complain – it’s what you asked for. I don’t have to give you hand-made full cream Italian gelato.

And secondly, while paying a decent level of pay is important, it’s been well recognised for decades that individuals value things like recognition, career development and personal satisfaction from work. Even if you consider someone like Dan Pink, with his suggestion that what people want is autonomy, mastery and purpose from work, is a bit too much of a modern fad (despite his very well researched books) then I’d direct you to that old HR staple, Herzberg, who 50 years ago suggested that pay was not enough on its own to provide satisfaction at work.

To put it simply, as a well-known band once said “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”

If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.

Are our workplaces designed to fail?

I’m a big fan of economist Tim Harford, and recently read his book “The Logic of Life”.  In one chapter he deals with an economic idea which offers an explanation of the reasons both for high executive pay and office politics – Tournament Theory.

The argument – supported by some statistical evidence – runs like this. Modern workplaces reward relative performance, not absolute performance. Good performers are defined, not by specific targets, but by being better than other performers. So work becomes a series of endless tournaments between ostensible colleagues – if one wins, another loses. And with victory comes reward.

Now just like in the current World Cup, victory can be obtained in various ways.  You can go all out to achieve success, putting in lots of discretionary effort – the equivalent of playing free-flowing, attacking football. But there are equally successful strategies that will win you the match without necessarily benefiting your employer. You can be risk averse, blocking anything new and sticking to the tried and trusted, stifling your more innovative opponent – the work equivalent of “parking the bus“. Or you can go out of your way to discredit, disrupt and stab your colleague in the back – the equivalent of trying to kick your opponent off the park. Your tactics are determined by doing not what is best for the organisation but what will work for you –  and just like the group stages of the World Cup will be decided not just by who your current opponent is but also what your other  colleagues are up to.

In this model, the prize for getting to the next level  has to be sufficient to make it worth competing at all. So if you earn £20000 pa, the prospect of a promotion to a salary of £25000 is a big jump. At £70000, an increase to £75000 will have far less effect but an increase to £90000 may well incentivise you. Chief Exec salaries of say £500000 aren’t designed to reward the individual in the role, but to act as an incentive to Directors below them who may be earning a “mere” £300000.

Of course, it’s easy to spot problems with this theory from an HR perspective. For example, it makes no allowance for intrinsic motivation, despite increasing scientific support for this playing a major part in the way individuals behave in the workplace.

But what the theory does do is to explain why many of our HR initiatives fail. If our organisation structure and pay and benefits system is set up to reward relative performance, it will inevitably encourage people to behave in the way that tournament theory predicts. No amount of family friendly policies, team building exercises, empowerment or innovative recruitment strategies will change this if we have designed systems that work against what we are trying to achieve. So while OD and “compensation & benefits” are seen as the less ‘sexy’ end of HR, maybe they are the ones we should be paying more attention to if we really want to change the world of work.